Why South Africa is a flawed democracy

South Africa has climbed one place in The Economist Intelligence Unit’s (EIU) Democracy Index for 2018 – though its score remains unchanged from last year.

The index is based on five categories: electoral process and pluralism; civil liberties; the functioning of government; political participation; and political culture.

Based on its scores on a range of indicators within these categories, each country is then itself classified as one of four types of regime: “full democracy”, “flawed democracy”, “hybrid regime” and “authoritarian regime”.

Each category is scored out of 10 – the closer the score is to 10, the closer a country is to being a full democracy.

South Africa is ranked 40th out of the 167 territories covered by the index, pointing to a relatively strong democratic culture, though the country is categorised as a flawed democracy. It was ranked 41st in 2017.

According to The Economist, a flawed democracy is a country that holds free and fair elections, and where, even if there are problems, basic civil liberties are respected.

However, such countries face problems in governance, an underdeveloped political culture and low levels of political participation.

Globally, the results for 2018 were mixed, EIU said. For the first time in three years, the global score for democracy remained stable – however this result disguised some movement across regions and across categories.

“One country, Costa Rica, moved from a flawed democracy to a full democracy; at the other end of the spectrum, one country, Nicaragua, moved from flawed regime to authoritarian regime,” it said.

A total of 42 countries experienced a decline in their total score compared with 2017; 48 registered an increase in total score. But as a percentage of the world’s population, fewer people lived in some form of democracy (47.7%, compared with 49.3% in 2017).

Very few of these (4.5%) were classified as living in a full democracy.

Just over one-third of the population lived under authoritarian rule, with a large share represented by China.

According to the index, there are only 20 full democracies in the world, with 55 nations being flawed democracies, and 39 being hybrid regimes. 53 territories are considered being under authoritarian rule.

Democracy in South Africa

South Africa’s democracy score has been slowly declining since the Index launched in 2006, where its score was 7.91. This has gradually fallen over time to 7.24 in 2017 and 2018, with slight recoveries in 2013 and 2014.

The country’s weakest performance is in political culture (score of 5.00) which analyses things like social cohesion, and public preferences for different types of rule (socialist, military, authoritarian, technocratic etc).

The strongest performing category is in political participation (score of 8.33) which measures voter turnout, gender representation in parliament, and the population’s general interest in elections.

South Africa scored 7.42 for its electoral process and pluralism, which tracks the freeness and fairness of elections, and issues like the transparency of political funding and balance of power between the majority party and opposition parties.

This is significantly lower than the 9 point plus range covered by most other countries ranked around it in the index.

South Africa has only recently made moves to make party funding open and transparent – while the ANC enjoys a strong majority, with only the smallest of chances that opposition parties could take full power.

The functioning of government (which tracks representation of parties, checks and balances to keep leaders in check, and the reach of the state) scored 7.50, and civil liberties (which tracks things like free media, right to protest and government oppression) scored 7.94.

Among Sub-Saharan countries, South Africa was ranked fourth in the region, below Mauritius (the only full democracy on the list), Cabo Verde and Botswana.


Read: New poll shows ANC dominating 2019 elections

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Why South Africa is a flawed democracy